Magazine article The Spectator

Beijing Notebook

Magazine article The Spectator

Beijing Notebook

Article excerpt

David Cameron should have enjoyed his trip this week. Autumn is a great time to be in Beijing. The sky is deep blue, the sun hot and the evenings cool. As the season progresses, the shadows thrown by the tall buildings lengthen and the north wind from Mongolia blows a little more urgently. The pollution in Beijing is much less bad than in other Chinese cities, and the new parks and landscaped gardens and flower beds are beautifully tended. Rem Koolhaas's massive CCTV headquarters, Paul Andreu's National Theatre 'the Egg', and Ai Weiwei's Olympic Stadium add to the grandeur of this great northern capital. During the autumn holiday, half of China migrates from one side of the country to the other to visit their families.

For about 10 days the whole country is en fete. Food is central to Chinese wellbeing and now is the time for hairy crabs from Shanghai, roasted chestnuts and tanghulu (caramelised crab apples on sticks) sold on street corners. The melons and grapes are fresh from Xinjiang.

A few months ago our 'national treasure' Stephen Fry announced to a large audience out here that 'the British don't make things any more, that is why we are bust'. I'd urge him to try the delicious mooncakes made by a joint British-Hong Kong Chinese venture, 20 million of which were eaten in China during the Moon Festival. Or he could take a look at the stunning British Pavilion at Shanghai Expo, designed by the young architect Thomas Heatherwick, or the superb Hong Kong Pavilion, which was British-built.

Incidentally, the British Pavilion turned out to be one of the most popular, attracting 45,000 visitors a day. This is more than all of the six most popular tourist venues in the UK put together.

Some eight million people have visited in the last six months. That's even more people than follow Mr Fry on Twitter.

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai can be awful. If traffic is bad, the queues are worse. People were queuing for up to six hours to get into Expo. The modernisation of Shanghai has been left in the hands of public sector developers, and urban planning and regulation are minimal.

There are no new parks and what few trees have been planted are in a lamentable state.

While London is 40 per cent parkland, the urban wonder of Shanghai has only a miserable 4 per cent.

There has been a 'constant battle' to preserve historic Hangzhou, once the capital of the Song Dynasty and a place of spectacular beauty set on the West Lake two hours north of Shanghai. …

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